Posted inGlobal Affairs

Cameroon Conflict: The influence of language and colonial legacy

Colonial Languages as Oppressors and Drivers of Conflict

In Western culture, the ability to speak multiple languages  is heralded as a means of professional mobility. We’re taught from a young age that multilingualism will ‘open doors for you’, especially if your languages are spoken in multiple regions across the world. This is particularly the case for Western European languages spoken in postcolonial regions. Whilst these languages do open doors for people like me, they simultaneously perpetuate cultural erasure by facilitating the disappearance of regional and national dialects. Not only is the inheritance of imperialist languages a means by which colonial legacy continues to distance populations from their native practices, but this inheritance also serves an integral factor in the ongoing Cameroonian conflict.

The Role of Imperialist Language in the Cameroon Crisis.

Since 2017, a conflict between Anglophone separatists in the West of Cameroon and the francophone government has led to the deaths of thousands of people. The crisis is founded upon the social, cultural and professional incompatibility that exists between two factions that were subject to different colonial regimes and different languages. Indeed, in 2016, it was the choice of the French-speaking Cameroonian government to impose the use of French in schools and courts that led to the protestations from anglophone communities which ultimately culminated in the violence we see today. The isolation and immobilisation felt by the English-speaking people of Cameroon mirrors that which has been enforced upon indigenous communities for centuries. Even today, government imposed language requirements can serve as a criteria that denies individuals opportunities in education, academia, the arts and the civil service, and yet these very same languages are made readily available for students of the Western world. The person reading this article right now was likely afforded the opportunity to learn both the English and French spoken on either sides of the Cameroonian conflict – I certainly was.

Promoting the Education of National Languages

The Cameroon National Institute of Statistics reports that 4% of the states’ local languages have disappeared since 1950. A greater number are threatened, and a greater number still are classified as “neglected”. In spite of possessing 260 local languages in multiple distinctive regions, Cameroon’s two official languages are those of their 20th-century colonial rulers. Luckily, efforts are actively being made within Cameroon to both save and advance indigenous languages. The Ministry of Basic or Elementary Education is currently experimenting with the implementation of five national languages – Ewondo, Bassa, Douala, Womala and Fufulde – in schools throughout the country. Educational establishments have also received instruction and training to teach national languages that are spoken within a given school’s district. To further this effort, we should strive to use Cameroonian Pidgin English more often ( within education spaces. This locally-owned form of the inherited colonial dialect could act as a vehicle for owning and recapturing a language that was imposed on the region by an imperial force, and obliquely lead to rehabilitation of local and regional languages. Hopefully, thriving Cameroonian languages and the identities that come with them will act as a source of commonality for the generations of Cameroonians that will inherit the trauma of the current conflict.

Given the impact that language has had on the Cameroonian conflict, I feel that we have a responsibility to read more about the places we visit, and to develop a better appreciation of how the international ubiquity of languages such as English or French came to be. Perhaps next time we feel the urge to try and learn a new language, we’ll think twice about the factors that are driving our decisions, and ask ourselves if the choice we’re making could help to keep a language alive for years to come.